If disagreements between spouses aren't in a mutually respectful manner, keep them behind closed doors
“Adina” spun her chair to face me directly, practically glaring at me. I had just raised an eyebrow (or two) after her husband, “Ben,” had complained that she often confronted him at their Shabbos table.
“So what if we disagree in front of the children?” Adina challenged me. “Is that a crime? Look, when I was growing up, my parents often quarreled with each other out in the open. I think it’s healthy for kids to see that parents can disagree and still survive. How else are they supposed to learn that? Some children never see their parents argue. And then, when they grow up, get married, and have their first fight, they’re so bent out of shape that they run right off to the beis din for a get.”
Tilting her head toward her husband, Adina continued her harangue. “Ben, however, comes from a home where his parents only disagreed behind closed doors. To him, ‘conflict’ is a dirty word. I guess that’s why he gets so hypersensitive whenever I just express a different point of view.”
Ben and Adina were not coming to me for marriage counseling, although they certainly could have benefited from a few sessions of that. Instead, they had come for parental guidance in dealing with more than one problematic child. And in the course of describing for me what their Shabbos table was like, Ben had slipped in a charge that Adina often embarrassed him by harshly criticizing him in front of their children.
Trying to maintain a balanced approach to this couple, I looked for points of agreement with both of them. Turning first to Adina, I acknowledged that children do need to learn not to avoid conflict like the plague. They also need to learn how to negotiate their differences with others. And the best way to learn those skills is by observing the adults around them, especially their parents.
Then, looking at Ben, I added that all of those negotiations, however, must be conducted without raised voices, in a civil tone and with undeniable mutual respect. And if, as he had reported, Adina often used defamatory, insulting, and demeaning language in her criticism of him, then her conduct did not quite meet that standard.
The Torah commands us to execute a ben sorer u’moreh (Devarim 21:18–21). In describing the necessary conditions that must be met, however, before this harsh punishment is meted out, the Torah states that the parents must first testify that their child “does not listen to our voice” (singular). Note, the Torah does not say “our voices” (plural).
Commenting on this anomaly, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch ztz”l wrote the following.
Only if… the father and mother have one voice, both deal with him in equal authority, in equal dignity, and above all, in the same agreed-upon ideas and wishes, only then can they say to themselves that it is not their fault if their son is a failure. If any one of these factors is missing, where, above all, there is not complete agreement between parents in bringing up their children, then the failure of the child is no proof of the moral badness of his nature.
According to Rav Hirsch, therefore, “complete agreement between father and mother” must be the “preliminary factor in bringing up children.”
The corollary, of course, is that open rancor, raw conflict, and hostile dissention between parents are extremely toxic for children of all ages and the cause of many of the psychological and emotional problems that wind up in any therapist’s office.
A dayan at a prominent beis din in Lakewood recently shared that, as a result of his official duties, he often comes into contact with lawyers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Not too long ago, he met a matrimonial lawyer who had served as a US Marine in Iraq. This war veteran really looked the part, with numerous tattoos and a physique that could intimidate even a professional football player. During an informal down-time conversation, he made the following personal disclosure to the dayan.
“During my tour of duty in Iraq,” the lawyer began, “I was shot and wounded. I witnessed buddies of mine die in front of me. And I even had to kill people. In spite of all that, the experience that traumatized me the most in my life was when I was lying in bed at night as a young child and hearing my parents fight with each other.”
Not too long ago, I was working with a twenty-something single man who suffered from such serious depression that, at times, he felt suicidal and would even cut his arm with a razor. Among the many challenges he faced growing up were the divorce of his parents, and later, after his mother remarried, the open discord between his mother and stepfather.
Attempting to demonstrate my empathy for this man’s struggles, I repeated to him what the Iraq War veteran had to say about his own childhood. The following week, the young man reported to me that the previous week had been his first in many months in which he did not feel suicidal. And he attributed that renewed sense of hope to the validation of his own challenges he felt upon hearing the account of the veteran Marine at our previous session.
Yes, Adina’s point was well taken. Children do need to learn how to deal with conflict by observing their parents negotiate their differences with each other. But Ben was also correct in wanting to shield his children from the devastating, long-lasting, destructive impact that open displays of parental strife and hostility can have on the children’s sense of security and emotional well-being.
Bottom line — if the disagreement between you and your spouse will not be addressed in a mutually respectful manner, then be sure to keep it behind closed doors. Otherwise, your children will suffer more than you can ever imagine.
Dr. Meir Wikler, a frequent contributor to this space, is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice, with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. He is also a public speaker whose lectures and shiurim are carried on TorahAnytime.com.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 884)
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